The Importance of Being Earnest opened this past weekend, signifying Titan Theatre Company's return to The Queen's Theatre stage for their 2015/16 season. However, the opening of Earnest also signified another return to stage, one of a personal and emotional nature for Titan's Artistic Director, Lenny Banovez.
As Co-founder and Artistic Director of Titan Theatre Company, Banovez has faced many challenges in order to stand on his own two feet-- professionally, artistically and also quite literally.
In the interview below, he opens up about his battles, his return to the boards, and shows us a glimpse of his remarkable and indomitable spirit.
So Lenny, how did you first get into theatre?
[He sighs] A girl. I had always been in choir, but the theatre bug hit because a girl I was dating
during my Freshman year in High School suggested I try out for a play. So I did. Our high school actually had one of the better theatre programs in the country. So, I went from being a jock to a drama geek almost overnight.
Then I got my BA in Theatre in Wisconsin and my MFA from Ohio University’s Professional Actor Training Program under Jack Young.
And how did Titan Theatre Company start?
Titan started as a way for friends and myself to have something to do when we were off contract and auditioning in NYC. We started doing Shakespeare in the now infamous “Tex Mex restaurant" and began to realize people were really into what we were doing. So Kevin Beebee, Laura Frye, and myself decided to really go for it. We then hired the amazing Alyssa Van Gorder and she has been instrumental in moving the company ahead. But to be honest, I never thought it would turn into what it has!
What are some favorite roles you’ve played as an actor?
This is always a tough question.
For Titan, Hamlet was a big one for me obviously.
Valere in Tartuffev at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre is one of my favorites, because of the brilliant cast we had. Some of the most important people in my life were in that show.
Henry V, Feste, and the Fool in Lear are other favorite roles. And Algernon 1.0 at PCPA is easily my favorite production of all time.
What are some favorite experiences you’ve had directing and as an Artistic Director?
My directing career is still so surprising for me. So to talk about it is still odd.
One of my prouder moments with Titan was our "pull your part out of the hat"
The first iteration, especially, was a very special show for me and one of the best times in my life.
And Titan’s Henry V was our first REAL production, so it has a special place in my heart.
Outside of Titan, returning Texas Shakespeare last year to direct Man of La Mancha was a real honor. I had been there as an actor and to return as a director felt like a huge accomplishment.
As an Artistic Director I would have to say the "Shakespeare in Queens” Project with the Queens Library is something I’m very proud of. To join forces with the Public Libraries of Queens in such an ambitious and exciting outreach program--doing readings of ALL of Shakespeare's plays throughout the borough to audiences who may not otherwise experience Shakespeare--is already shaping up to be something very special.
You say your "directing career is still so surprising" for you? Why is that? What precipitated your transition from being an actor to a director?
The cause of my sudden transition from actor to director was my completely unexpected diagnosis with Myasthenia Gravis, also known as MG. MG is an auto immune/neuro muscular disease that is very similar to Multiple Sclerosis. The body produces antibodies that attack the neuromuscular junction. By attacking the junction between the nerves and muscles, your muscles aren’t able to work properly and the byproduct of that is extreme muscle weakness in voluntary muscles such as the mouth, the lungs, throat, arms, legs, hands and eyes.
When did you notice something was wrong? And is Myasthenia Gravis difficult to diagnosis?
The process of trying to figure out what "I had" was the most horrifying experience of my life.
The very first symptom I had was slurred speech. Which for an actor is obviously terrifying. I knew something was wrong so I went to a few doctors and was told, first, that it was just an inner ear infection and then that my symptoms were caused by stress. Soon, I began having issues swallowing food. Then double vision. I didn't know it at the time, but the muscles in my eyes were too weak to be able to keep both eyes focused at the same level, which caused my double vision. Then, I lost my voice completely because my muscles were so weak that my vocal chords couldn’t move to produce enough sound. Eventually the muscles in my throat were so weak I couldn’t swallow food at all. Finally, I went to a doctor who believed I was dealing with more than just "stress" and recommended I see a neurologist.
The nuerologist ran a battery of tests. The first tests were for a possible brain tumor. Then ALS/Lou Gehrig's disease. Two illnesses that would have meant my life would most likely be over before 33. Looking back I still can't wrap my head around that. Thankfully those tests came back negative. Then came a test for MS, which came back negative as well. The MG diagnosis came after a blood test confirmed the presence of MG antibodies.
What was it like when you realized that you would have to forego acting because of your health condition? How did you process and cope?
I was crushed at first.
I had two shows lined up and interest from some of the largest companies in the country that I had always dreamed of working with. Everything I had worked so hard for seemed to disappear overnight. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t sing. There was no chance I could perform - and the prognosis was that I might never perform again. I believed my acting career was over.
Luckily for me, I have an amazing wife who wouldn't let me sit in that state of mind for long. Within a week I started to refocusing on directing. I couldn't perform myself. But as a director, I might still be able to have a voice through others.
I still remember my first day of rehearsal for Titan’s Henry V. I couldn't speak yet, so I wrote all my notes down and whispered in actor's ears. It actually went amazingly well. I was thrilled to be working still. I knew I'd be able to have a career in theatre still. It just seemed that God had a different place for me in that world.
What Doctors did you work with and what treatments did you undergo in order to “get your body back?”
I am not a normal patient. Which can be a good and bad thing I guess. My disease is rare. Extremely rare. So I did a lot of research on it. I wanted to make sure that I knew as much about it so I could dictate my care in the right way.
For me, I focused heavily on the fact that it was an auto immune disease. My body was attacking itself. So I focused on how to "call off the attack" and on a long term recovery.
After a long road of hiring and firing doctors, I found what I refer to as my odd couple. I found a holistic applied kinesiologist (aka hippie Doctor) and the best neurologist in NYC. They worked together as a team, which was unique if you know anything about the difference between eastern and western medicine. My nuerologist's job was to focus on my immediate care. Meds to make my body stop attacking itself. The western philosophy: cure the symptoms. My hippie doc focused on long term treatment of my body to cure an incurable disease. Things like detox and meditation.
I also took my diet into my own hands. I have a firm belief that food can be a huge part of wellness and curing disease. It definitely was for me. I went entirely organic and start juicing. I know many think of it as a Hollywood fad or a way to loose weight. But for me it was the key tool in restoring my health. I still swear by it and still do it today.
What motivated you to stick to these treatments and believe you could get better?
My wife. At 31 years old and not even married for a year yet at that time and I was in a hospital connected to machines and tubes. Barely able to talk or eat. Not once did she look at me like “I didn’t sign up for this.” All she ever said to me was, “You got this. It won’t always be like this.” She pulled me through everything. Like a champ. I will never forget that, and she will always be my best friend because of it.
How do you deal with relapses and the “new normal” in this highly stressful and unforgiving profession?
Running a company is so damn stressful that it is insane for me to process at times, so I don't know what the "new normal" is. “How can putting on a play be so stressful?” I don’t know…but it is. Balancing stress is the hardest part of my health now. Stress can cause a relapse in symptoms. And my body will tell me very clearly when it is unhappy. Usually it shows as extreme exhaustion. Every now and then my words will begin to slur or my eyes will begin to get "lazy," and I take those as "warning signs" telling me I need to make some serious adjustments. However, I’ve been in full remission (meaning no medication and no debilitating symptoms) for coming up on three years. So it’s been going very well.
So how long has it been since you were on-stage?
What made you decide to return to the stage for The Importance of Being Ernest?
As I mentioned, I had played the role before at Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts a number of seasons ago. So I knew the stress of learning a new role wasn’t going to be an issue. Plus, I just flat out love the part. I’m a good fit for it. And I wanted another crack at it. So it made sense.
How is the show going for you so far?
I am having the time of my life. It’s a bit surreal at times to be doing it again, but I love it. I was definitely rusty at first, but after a little while, things started coming back pretty quick. It reminded me how much I love it. How much I missed it. I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to be acting again. Many people who have MG struggle with everyday life. For me to be able to this again... it is truly a blessing.
How do you think your health battles have changed you as a theatre artist and a person?
It has changed everything about me. It has humbled me. It has given me appreciation for life. It’s made me care about others more. It also made me work harder. I have to admit that it made me extremely ambitious. Having your mortality tested at a very young age made me really work hard now and not wait for later. Because later is never guaranteed. I say no to very few projects and I work very very hard all the time. I want to do everything and anything I can while I have the honor of walking this planet. So I do that.
I always say, if I could go back and have a choice to get sick or not get sick….I would choose to get sick. I know that sounds nuts. But I would. MG has made me a better person. I love more. Share more. Give more. Care more. Create more. All because I almost had it all taken away from me. The person I am because of MG is way better than the person I would be without it. That is what I truly hold dear in all of this, what I'm actually proud of -- that I was able to turn something devastating into a positively life altering opportunity.
some production photos from some of Lenny's past shows